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From prison to prosperity: Black belt Gabe Cohen fights addiction and finds faith and family along the way

Matthew Bennett, Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Krava Maga instructor Gabe Cohen practices defensive tactics on the dummy inside his studio in Glenwood. Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Two decades and a lifetime ago, Gabe Cohen wrote his mom and dad a letter from his cell in the Mesa County Jail. 

After violating his parole, which stemmed from a felony drug conviction in Aspen, Cohen was awaiting his transfer to a prison facility in Walsenburg, Colorado.

In the letter dated Oct. 22, 1999, Cohen wrote, “All these different people I meet and all of their different situations are all so sad.” 

Just 29 at the time, Cohen went on to write “I ponder a lot of thoughts and try to have sympathy and compassion for people who are in so much pain on the inside.”

“I guess I can relate,” Cohen added.

Cohen went on to spend the better part of eight years in prison.

He blames no one but himself.

KINGS AND PRIESTS MINISTRY

These days, Cohen still frequents the Eagle and Garfield County jails, but for a higher purpose: to host weekly Bible studies with inmates. 

During his own years of incarceration, Cohen found himself reading the New King James Version of the Holy Bible, in particular Revelation 1:6. 

“It reads that he has made us kings and priests,” Cohen said. “You know, three-time felon, drug addict…that scripture just spoke to me.”

When Cohen was released from prison in 2011, he needed to create an email address – something he had never done before – and settled on the username kings and priests. 

Earlier this year, Kings and Priests Ministry officially became a local nonprofit organization.

For Cohen, the jail and prison ministry does not end with weekly, two-hour-long bible studies, either.

Instead, Cohen strives to assist those getting out of jail who have nothing other than a criminal record. 

“A lot of them have the wrong people that come and pick them up,” Cohen said. “I want to be there at the gate when they get out to help them get to their mental health appointments, get their medications and to find employment.” 

Through Kings and Priests Ministry, Cohen spends his Thursday and Friday mornings studying the faith with inmates. 

“I want them to know that change is possible,” Cohen said. 

AMERICAN KRAV MAGA

After completing his final prison sentence, and with nowhere to go, Cohen spent his days in Denver-area libraries reading when he came across Krav Maga.

“I discovered the words ‘Krav Maga’ while I was homeless reading a book at the library,” Cohen said. “I took my first Krav Maga class in Denver and fell in love with it.” 

The official combat system of the Israeli Defense Force, Krav Maga implements a variety of self-defense techniques and translates from Hebrew to English as “contact combat” or “close combat.” 

“I was looking for a link back to my family,” Cohen said, whose family is of Jewish heritage.

Wanting to reconnect with his two sons who were attending Glenwood Springs High School, Cohen worked up the courage to ask if they would like to meet up. 

“I went to prison when they were 2 and 4,” Cohen said. “When I finally resurfaced they were 15 and 17-years-old.”

Cohen and his two sons reconnected in Glenwood Springs for a workout class and have stayed in touch ever since.

TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS

Before volunteering in the jails and working as a Krav Maga instructor, Cohen did nightclub security for $13 an hour.     

“I was working armed posts, but I couldn’t carry a gun because I’m a felon,” Cohen said. 

A three-time felon, Cohen’s job opportunities after being released from prison were few and far between.

While the nightclub work paid the bills, it also put Cohen in a vulnerable position.    

“I was entering territory I knew I shouldn’t be in,” Cohen said. “I wanted to believe that I could handle it, but when I got hospitalized I realized I was playing Russian roulette and I had to tap out.” 

Seventeen months ago, Cohen was taken to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction due to kidney complications from drug use over the years.

He vividly recalls the doctors explaining to him that they were not sure he would leave the medical center alive. 

“Everyday I thought I was going home, the doctors would come in and say, ‘There’s no improvement yet … we’re not sure if you’re ever going home,’” Cohen said.  

A firm believer in forgiveness and second chances, Cohen fought for his life and eventually recovered.

However, following the near-death experience, Cohen quit working in the nightclub scene and focused all of his efforts on teaching Krav Maga but more importantly staying sober, for good.

Cohen went on to earn his black belt and today trains everyone from law enforcement officers to single mothers in the self-defense skills of Krav Maga at his dojo in Glenwood Springs on Sixth Street.

In the letter he sent to his parents on his way to prison in 1999, Cohen ended by saying “It’ll all come together one day. I know it will.”

Today, Cohen has over 17 months of sobriety under his belt. 

mabennett@postindependent.com


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